When Heidi Parker was a new mother 18 years ago, her health plan didn’t cover all of her child’s vaccinations. But she was persistent and committed to ensuring her child’s health. Eventually she was able to get her son all the immunizations he needed at the Washoe County Health District.
Today, it’s a lot easier for Nevadans to stay current on their vaccinations and Parker is, in a small part, responsible for that. As Executive Director of Immunize Nevada, she has been laser-focused on ensuring Nevadans’ access to health-preserving (and sometimes life-saving) vaccines for more than a decade.
Public Health as a Calling
Parker has always been drawn to helping people. In 2007, she started her Nevada public health career at the Northern Nevada Immunization Coalition (NNIC). In the early days she persevered on a shoestring budget with a two-person team, educating the public, fighting misinformation and working to improve vaccine accessibility. NNIC eventually became Immunize Nevada.
Parker and other health advocates caught a big break in 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The legislation solved many of the accessibility challenges by including vaccines in mandated health coverage. Funding her work got a bit easier in 2013 when Immunize Nevada became a 501(c)3, opening them up to private funding. Even today, Immunize Nevada depends on private foundations, grants and corporate sponsors for more than 50 percent of their funding.
A Changing Landscape
The goal for Parker has remained the same over the years – to help protect Nevadans from vaccine-preventable diseases though immunization. But some of the challenges to accomplishing that have changed.
Non-profit healthcare funding was a struggle when she started in 2007 and it continues to be today. “People tend to think the government funds our work,” Parker explains. “Federal grants cover less than half of our budget. And that money can change every year.”
How Immunize Nevada talks about health and even who they talk to has changed drastically. With the prevalence of social media and web-based communication, they now have direct access to the Nevadans they want to help, and they no longer need to rely solely on healthcare providers to share their prevention message. And while this accessible, open communication is a blessing, it is also a curse.
Jenny McCarthy’s vocal anti-vaccination activism and celebrity in the 2000s wreaked havoc with pro-immunization advocacy, but it was just a taste of what was to come.
“While the anti-vax movement today is small in numbers, they are very loud and very disruptive,” explains Parker. “They are pitting parents against healthcare experts and scientists, which is frustrating for us and dangerous for public health.”
Mission and Passion Driven
In the current environment, Parker’s job isn’t always easy. It requires a strong will, a thick skin, endless energy and a passion for the mission. Parker has all four. When asked what instant superpower she would want, Parker says she’d love to be a shapeshifter like Elasti-Girl, “Because I’m being pulled in so many directions.”
With a team of eight, Immunize Nevada attends 150 community events a year. While the majority of Nevadans believe in the value of vaccination, Parker’s job is to convince, encourage and remind people to get them — for their own good, as well as the good of their community. Parker has found that in-person, direct communication can be very effective in dispelling vaccination myths and educating people about vaccine safety and herd immunity.
The concept of herd immunity — that if enough people are immunized against a disease it resists spreading — requires people to think beyond their individual feelings and actions. When you’re trying to keep an entire state healthy, every individual vaccine is another brick in the wall holding a disease back. And Parker is trying to build 100 different walls at once.
“It’s not simply a matter of individual rights,” says Parker, “What is the right of an immunocompromised child? When you choose not to vaccinate, that choice affects others.”
While the job is tough, it has its moments. “I recently talked to a struggling mom who was trying to get her kids vaccinated,” Parker says. “When we directed her to a free clinic, she was so relieved she cried. People like her keep us going.”
How You Can Support Immunize Nevada’s Public Health Mission
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Get your vaccines: It takes all of us to maintain community protection through herd immunity